June 25, 2019

Supreme Court reverses Ninth Circuit, holds that punitive damages are unavailable under maritime law for claims of unseaworthiness (Dutra Group v. Batterton)

The Ninth Circuit created a circuit split last year when it held that punitive damages are available under general maritime law for personal-injury unseaworthiness claims (i.e., claims that a vessel owner willfully and wantonly failed to provide a vessel reasonably fit for its intended purpose, resulting in personal injury).

Yesterday, the Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit in a 6-3 decision written by Justice Alito (with Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor dissenting).   

Justice Alito based his majority opinion on two grounds: (1) "overwhelming historical evidence" indicating that punitive damages have not been available for personal-injury unseaworthiness claims, and (2) the need to preserve a parallelism between maritime common law and maritime statutory law (the Jones Act), which generally limits a seaman's damages to pecuniary losses.

Justice Alito had to distinguish the Court's 2009 in Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend, which allowed recovery of punitive damages under the Jones Act and general maritime law for willful and wanton failure to provide "maintenance and cure" (a term of art referring to a vessel owner's obligation to provide food, lodging, and medical services to injured seamen).  The majority opinion in Atlantic Sounding relied on historical evidence that punitive damages were traditionally available in maintenance and cure cases.  Justice Alito found no such evidence supporting recovery of punitive damages for unseaworthiness.  Interestingly, Justice Thomas, who wrote the majority opinion in Atlantic Sounding, signed on to Justice Alito's opinion in Dutra.

The opinion is not likely to have any impact outside the maritime context.